‘Original’ hip-hop and ‘formularized’ K-pop: Authenticity and the good/bad music paradigm


By Ida Bulölö

Rhymin’ astronomical, original, shit is phenomenal
– Nine, Whutcha Want

In this essay I explore the value of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music, and look into the ways that ideas surrounding the quality of music are constructed. It seems that the verdict of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is largely based on the authenticity of the music. Yet authenticity is a very difficult concept, as ideas on authenticity widely differ, not only between music genres but also personally. I thought it would be interesting to compare two opposites in the spectrum, to see how they are constructed within the ‘good’/’bad’ music paradigm in connection with the music being seen as authentic or not. These two genres are hip-hop and K-pop (Korean pop music). To me, they represent one of the biggest dichotomies when it comes to the notion of ‘authentic music’, despite the fact that I regularly listen to both. In hip-hop, especially the ‘oldskool’ genre, there is a huge emphasis on originality and creativity. Being a ‘real’ rapper—not a sell-out, commercial, in-it-for-the-money-MC—is one of the most important conditions for having the hip-hop audience take you seriously. Rappers cannot admit to being ‘produced’ instead of being ‘authentic’, for this will damage their reputation seriously. MCs should not be merely a product of their record label, but have their own voice. In K-pop—which many people see as the epitome of formularized, ‘bad’ music—we see total recognition for the fact that these musicians are made by companies and are not much different from being a consumer good instead of an artist. The audiences, as well as the musicians, are fully aware of this fact and nobody tries to pretend otherwise. By comparing these two music genres I hope to gain more insight into the way authenticity in relation to music is constructed.

Music evaluation

I want to build on the theory of Frith, in his Performing rites: On the value of popular music (1998), in particular the chapter ‘Common sense and the language of criticism’, where he looks into the way value judgments are attached to music and how these are constructed. According to Frith, three social groups have a say in what is considered good, quality music: the musician, the audience and the critic. Each group has very different ways of valuing music and thus their perception of what counts as good music usually differs. Of the three, the musician is probably the one that is most routinely involved in the process of judging music. Of course they judge finished pieces, which includes both their own songs as well as other people’s songs. But also during the composition of a song or a piece, the construction is completely based on value judgments.

Musicians have to make a series of decisions-should I play this note, use this take, hire this musician, change the melody here, the order of the set there, shorten my solo, change the key; and these decisions rest on a constant process of evaluation- that’s the wrong chord, the wrong tempo, the wrong sound, the wrong mix (…) Such decisions are both individual (…) and social-only other people, other musicians can legitimate your decisions. (Frith, 1998:52)

The key aspect in this quote that I wish to highlight is that value judgments are inherently personal as well as social. Value is determined during interaction, where others can validate an opinion by agreeing with it, or devaluate it by disagreeing. The whole concept of value is therefore a social construction, not a truth in itself.

It is during the performance that a musician deals most directly with this social interaction that establishes value. A performance is the space where the musician interacts closely with the audience; it is where he or she can notice a divide between the way the musician sees the music and the way the audience reacts to this (Frith, 1998: 53-54). Much of the audience’s reaction is based on the performativity of the musician or band they are watching. The power of performance, according to Schieffelin (1998: 194), lies in its ability to ‘create and make present realities vivid enough to beguile, amuse or terrify’, and thereby to ‘alter moods, social relations, bodily dispositions and states of mind’.

The audience’s positive reception is one of the most important criteria for a good performance. So it often happens that a less technically skilled or talented musician has more evocative power and is therefore more successful in engaging an audience. This also means that more talented and able musicians may be lesser known and vice versa. That is probably why many musicians, as well as critics, have quite a negative view of audience music appreciation (Frith 1998: 53-54). To the ‘authentic’ musician it is much less valuable than, say, critical acclaim. Since it is felt that the audience does not (and is neither expected to) know about the technicalities of the piece of music, their way of listening to music is considered ‘less intelligent’. The audience puts enjoyment first and rates a music piece for its performative virtues, according to Schieffelin (1998).

Last but not least we have the critic, who operates as a bridge between the music and the audiences, trying either to make sense of a music piece for the audience or to make the desires of an audience clear to the musician. For this essay, however, I will not focus so much on the critic’s role in the construction of the good/bad music paradigm.

Besides these three social groups, we have the people who enable musician-audience contact, whom Frith (1998: 61) calls the producers, denoting anyone involved in the process of presenting the musician to an audience. Producers use both value judgments from the music scene and audience impetus to decide which musician is ready to engage with an audience. I feel that Frith did not include the producers in his theory of the three social groups, because they are not as much concerned with judging the music on its quality but more with judging the musicians on their commercial viability. Yet these ‘producers’ play a very important part in the music scene and I will return to them later, especially in relation to the K-pop industry.

Authenticity vs. copy

According to Firth (1998: 71-72), one of the criteria which the mentioned three social groups apply when valuing music is authenticity. The difficulty with the notion of authenticity is that for most people it seems like an objective criterion. The ability to differentiate between something or someone being ‘real’ or ‘fake’ is an essential part of human social interaction and I feel this is one of the reasons people feel so strongly about authenticity. Authenticity and music appreciation are usually closely linked with the musician’s intention. If a musician has been ‘genuine’ in his or her work process, the general consensus is that the music is ‘authentic’ and not formularized. The seeming dichotomy of authentic and formularized is for many people equal to the dichotomy of good and bad music. The most common complaint about bad, so-called formularized, music is that it is nothing more than a copy—a copy of other songs, the way other musicians play their music, or an unoriginal take on a specific genre of music—and a copy can never be original or authentic. It seems implanted in our brains that everything that is of ‘real’ creative value cannot be derivative or influenced by former works. When we feel something is a copy, or as Frith calls it, formularized, for some reason that piece of work immediately loses value. But why should this be so?

Boon, in his book In praise of copying (2010), takes a very different stance on copying and argues that the act of imitation might lie at the basis of all human action. He cites Gabriel Tarde, who, in The laws of imitation (1890), set out the three principles of universal imitation—imitation at the physical level; reproductive imitation at the biological level, and imitation on a social level—claiming that imitation is thus found at all levels of human life, and that it is precisely because of imitation that variation and innovation exist (Boon, 2010:82). Following Tarde, Boon argues that man should not be judged for copying, as it is only natural. Boon further points to the positive connotations of copying in classical history, tracing the etymology of the word to the Latin word copia, meaning abundance. Copia was also the name of the Roman goddess of abundance (of harvest), a goddess linked to very positive concepts like prosperity, which meant the word copia was also a positive word.

But these days copying has a very negative connotation. Not only is the copy seen as of lesser value than the original, copying can also be seen to imply a deterioration of the original work, in which the original actually becomes less valuable because it is being copied. This notion can be related to the principle of mimesis, otherwise known as ‘contagious magic’ and/or ‘contagious similarity’ (Frazer, 1922: 42). Mimesis is the study of things, either objects or people that transfer their essence when it comes in contact with something else. The best example of the process of mimesis is the voodoo doll. When a tiny part of a human being (a hair, a fingernail) is added to a simple doll, mimesis ensures that the doll can represent this person. Because of the ‘contagious magic’ of the fingernail, the doll becomes a model for its owner and thus when the doll is hurt, the person it represents will also feel this. Mimesis also explains why copying is viewed so negatively. The object that is copied loses a bit of its essence, because it is being reproduced. So the copy actually ‘steals’ some of the ‘original’ power of the object and uses that object’s ‘contagious magic’ for its own good.

This could explain why in music authenticity is so valued as the opposite of imitation. When a music piece is imitated the genius of the ‘original’ is appropriated (without due credit) and used by someone who is less inherently genius. But by doing so, it gives off the impression that the imitator is a musical talent. Thereby, the ‘bad’ imitation also devalues the ‘good’ authentic original. The question is whether this logic holds equally for hip-hop and K-pop. For me personally, one of the biggest contradictions in modern-day music, when it comes to the evaluation of quality, in relation to authenticity, is that between oldskool or alternative hip-hop and formularized K-pop. Let me first explore the logic of authenticity in oldskool hip-hop, as based in the U.S.

Authenticity and quality in hip-hop: the meaning of dope

Hip-hop stems from the so-called ‘projects’ in New York, beginning in South-Bronx and Harlem, where young African-American and Latino youths employed a wide range of artistic forms of expression, using these as a voice and a way to rise up against a society where they were often, if not always, marginalized. Hip-hop comprises four elements: DJ-ing, MC-ing, graffiti and breaking (better known to the general public as ‘breakdancing’). The youths from the projects used these elements to get a message across: that society should take them seriously. Since its conception in 1970s New York, hip-hop in all its forms has traversed the world and engaged many a young person coming into contact with it. An interesting feature of hip-hop is the enormous emphasis on authenticity. Try googling ‘hip-hop’ and you will find a full paragraph on Wikipedia discussing authenticity.

So how has authenticity become such a pivotal point in hip-hop? The kids that took hip-hop to the streets were almost exclusively African-American youths who saw it as way to stand up to or rebel against society; the society where they so often did not get the opportunities a Caucasian-American kid of the same age would. A lot of African-American people feel this inequality is a continuation of the oppression they have had to deal with since the beginnings of the colonial slave trade. As the slave trade was monopolized by ‘White’ people who suppressed their slaves, who were mostly of African descent, hip-hop is a way of voicing Black dissatisfaction to a society that is mostly ruled by White people (Gilroy, 2010: 73-74). Hip-hop has, since its inception, always been seen as an anti-establishment movement. Despite many criticisms that hip-hop has now become too commercial to even pay tribute to its original ideals, it is still one of the few ways that Black voices are heard and are taken seriously in the U.S. Despite it being one of the most accepted ways for African-Americans to express themselves, hip-hop is still often criminalized and demonized in both American media and society at large.

The reason I have decided to focus on ‘oldskool’ and ‘alternative’ hip-hop for this essay, is exactly because there has been a lot of criticism towards modern-day mainstream hip-hop, which supposedly undermines the ‘true’ message hip-hop is supposed to stand for. The message has been watered down in favor of displays of masculinity and wealth where the actions of individuals speak louder than their music. Nas, hailed as one of the greatest MCs of all time, takes on this issue in Can’t forget about you, when he rhymes: That’s why the gangsta rhymers ain’t inspired; Heinous crimes helped record sales more than creative lines. Not only does Nas allude to the value of lyrical creativity that hip-hop should have in his eyes, he also mentions how hip-hop artists have found there are other ways to boost their record sales.

Because so much of the hip-hop movement and music is rooted in politics and is in many ways a critique on American society—from straightforward anti-establishment messages, to using song lyrics to own up to crimes committed, because it is often seen as the only way an African-American man can make a living—it is not strange that originality and especially authenticity are so important in hip-hop. This music is supposed to come from an angry, frustrated place and it is used as a medium to voice these feelings of frustration. If this feeling or opinion are not authentic, the music loses its meaning.


Wu Tang show
Wu-Tang Clan

Hip-hop is usually geared towards a specific audience, namely black (male) youths, even though the genre speaks to a lot of people. In terms of Frith’s theory, in hip-hop the audience is, probably even more so than musicians and critics, the most important judge of value. Especially when it comes to small-scale music events, like rap battles, the audience tends to be the judge. During a rap battle two MCs (rappers) go head to head in an improvised session, where the point is to prove (to the audience) who is the better rapper. These improvised raps are usually disses (from the term disrespect; meaning to put one down verbally) towards the opponent, or praises of their own persona. Originality plays an important part in these rap sessions and the opponent is often dissed with attacks on their lack of originality. Audience appreciation usually rides on the ability of the rappers to ‘wow the crowd’ with their original rhymes.

As we also see in rap battles, appreciation of musicians for one another’s work is also very important. When an MC respects another MC, he is not inclined to ridicule him through disses and often when mutual respect is established rappers will work together on music, either in one-off collaborations or by forming crews. One of the things most rappers will remain very vocal about, though, is their disrespect for anyone who does not understand their world, yet is willing to make money off of them. This is usually aimed at the social group that Frith has categorized as the producers. Many MCs use their songs as a critique of the music industry and comment on how rap is being turned into a commodity by the big capitalist machine, usually by people who have no understanding of hip-hop music. In his verse in Protect Ya Neck by the Wu-Tang Clan, for example, GZA takes on the manufacturability of hip-hop.

First of all, who’s your A&R
A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar?
But he don’t know the meaning of dope
When he’s looking for a suit-and-tie rap that’s cleaner than a bar of soap
– GZA (member of Wu-Tang Clan), Protect Ya Neck

According to GZA, A&R’s (Artist & Repertoire; talent scouts at record labels) don’t know what is going on (dope) when it comes to rap music. They would only look for ‘suit-and-tie rap’, meaning a clean-cut version of rap, not the ‘grimy’ authentic raps. So in hip-hop the ‘producers’ are not only disrespected, they are seen as enablers of inauthentic music. For that reason, no self-respecting ‘authentic’ MC would admit to the possibility of their rap or their persona being produced by a (White people-run) record label. This would go against everything that hip-hop stands for, including being anti-establishment and trying to fight free from White oppression. The constant stressing of being authentic and original, as both a way to stand out from other rappers and being true to the message hip-hop tries to convey, would be obliterated when it would become known that the MC and his or her music was produced. If truth be told, however, producers are regularly involved in the making of hip-hop music, even during the time of oldskool hip-hop or in the case of alternative hip-hop. All MCs that are not merely underground rappers, who have some kind of audience reach, probably have been in contact in some way or another with producers. But this whole process has to be downplayed, the malleability of hip-hop has to stay covert as much as possible.

In contemporary Hip Hop (…) most performers insist on “keepin’ it real”, being from “the streets” and “representin”, grounding musical personas in their version of “reality”. However, it would be a grave mistake to fall prey to the rappers’ self-construction (…), since these performers craft elaborate performative identities. (Weheliye, 2001: 303)

Because of the loaded history of hip-hop and its original meanings, a lot of importance is placed on the authenticity of the music. This translates directly to MCs putting up a front and denying being the product of anyone besides themselves and ‘the street’. Personally, I feel that the raw, evocative quality of hip-hop has a way of reaching deep inside and pulling out so many different emotions: anger, euphoria, and everything in between. Because hip-hop can make the audience experience feelings so intensely, there is a need to guarantee that the music comes from an honest place. The audiences have to be validated in their feelings, and that is why the music needs to be genuine.

Authenticity and quality in K-pop: the value of work

Compared with hip-hop, K-pop appears to be a total and utter contradiction when it comes to the value of authenticity. K-pop is often heavily criticized for its lack of authenticity, its copying or appropriation of ‘Western’ music, its pre-packaging of musicians and songs for fast consumption and its heavy emphasis on visual aspects at the expense of musical quality. So what is K-pop? In an article by Rousse-Marquet on InAGlobal, a website that reviews creative industries and media, the genre is described as follows:

Defining K-Pop as just South-Korean pop would be simplistic: K-Pop is a fusion of synthesized music, sharp dance routines and fashionable and colorful outfits. The catchy music (…) could be described as sanitized bubblegum pop with a fusion of electro, disco, hip-hop, R&B and rock sound. The genre seems to focus on bands rather than solo acts (…). While the songs are mostly in Korean, a few words of the repetitive choruses are sometimes in English for more international appeal, and a rap verse might be included.

Unlike hip-hop where the musicians appear to take a stance of rebellion against the people that produce (their) music, the blatant disrespect for producers is nowhere to be found in K-pop. Indeed, the talent and music agencies behind K-pop are often openly respected for the work they have done for (and on) their artists. In order to understand K-Pop, then, one has to understand how it is produced. In South Korea, pop music begins with the record labels, which also function as management companies/talent agencies. They are the ones that accompany the singers on their journey to stardom—one that Rousse-Marquet in her article calls a ‘thoroughly manufactured process’.

It all starts with the audition, where thousands of hopefuls compete in order to obtain a spot with the agency. If they pass the audition round, and many may try several times or at several agencies, they are usually signed under a trainee contract with the agency. This is usually when the real work begins, consisting of endless and endless training. The training they receive usually covers various fields, including not only singing and dancing, but also entertainment and foreign language skills (usually English, Chinese and Japanese). Their skills are constantly trained and evaluated (Flatley, 2012). Prospective singers can be accepted at a very young age, as young as 12, and some have been known to train for up to 6 or 7 years and even then they are not ensured of a chance to debut on stage. But once they do get the chance to debut, usually in all-boy or all-girl groups consisting of several members, the trainee instantly turns in to a full-fledged idol.

I feel this is a very interesting term that clearly marks the distinction between musicians and singers referred to as idols. The word idol (아이들) has its roots in old French, where it meant an object (usually deified) of worship, as we still can recognize in the English term ‘idolizing’. Idolizing is exactly what happens with the members of the latest girl or boy band. The interesting thing about this whole process is that, despite the countless auditions and years of training, there is no guarantee that the newly debuted idol is actually talented. The K-Pop industry is often accused of being more concerned with appearance than with actual talent, and even years of training cannot fully hide someone’s clumsy dance skills or less-than-special voice. So the idolization that takes place is not primarily based on the abilities of the idol group members, but mostly on the image they portray. Typically the members are incredibly beautiful or handsome (with or without help from a plastic surgeon, which is common and accepted practice in South Korea), and at least in the fans’ eyes they possess the inimitable X-factor that legitimizes their stardom.

The entertainment agencies skillfully play into this notion, by assigning different roles to the members in a group. Besides the role of the lead vocalist or the best dancer, there is also that of the visual/center (best looking) or the maknae (the cute, youngest member). And even in the most popular idol bands, the lack of talent of certain members is recognized and even openly admitted. For example; Girls Generation, also known as SNSD ( 소녀시대) , undeniably the most popular South Korean girl band of the last few years, has members that openly admit not being as talented as people hold them to be. In an episode of popular TV-show Running Man, during a karaoke game, SNSD member YoonAh (coincidentally the visual of the group) admitted that she found her group’s own songs difficult to sing. This is of course strange considering she has practiced for so many years and has to perform her group’s songs almost daily.


Girls Generation

So even when idols blatantly admit their lack of natural talent, and therefore authenticity as musicians, there is almost no backlash from the audience. How come? Boon (2010) links copying to Buddhism and other East Asian religions/doctrines, using these as examples for how copying should be accepted as part of human nature. In Buddhism, for example, repetition and copying is actually one of the ways to focus the mind and internalize Buddhist thinking. ‘Many Buddhist practices involve multiplication and repetition on a vast scale-for example, the repetition of a mantra’ (Boon, 2010: 62). Buddhism has been the main religion in Korea for many years, even though lately Christianity is a strong competitor. In Korean society copying is thus not seen as a bad thing. It is seen as a tool to focus the mind and as a way of practicing one’s craft. I would furthermore argue that Confucian standards also play a part in the appreciation of not-so-talented idols. The work ethic that, among other reasons, propelled South Korea into an economic boom is one largely based on Confucian ideals. As Kim and Park (2003) explain:

Confucian values of hard work and diligence were incorporated into the newly developed work ethic, thereby helping to shape a trainable, industrious work force in South Korea. Euiyok or will, an internal drive to accomplish and to succeed, seongsil (sincerity) and huisaeng (sacrifice), sacrificing for the sake of the company and the nation, were-and still are- Confucian-derived rallying words utilized by the government and companies to galvanize workers to work hard. (Kim & Park, 2003: 44)

This work ethic can also be seen in the harsh training and performance schedule of the trainees and idols in the K-pop business, and I think it is one of the reasons that natural talent takes a backseat to dedication. The knowledge that idols go through years of training, and put in many long hours of work congruent with the South Korean work ethic, makes that they are seen as genuine and most importantly in this context, authentic musicians. Their authenticity lies not in their innate competence, but in their acquired skill through hard work. The construction of the authentic musician and thus of authentic music is totally different from hip-hop.

But similar to hip-hop, in K-Pop it is also the audience that is the most important in making value judgments. K-Pop fans are notoriously invested in their idols and are known to go through measures to show their love that to most people feel quite extreme. Even the ‘regular’ fans put in a lot of effort to their fan-existence, such as by being member of the official fan club, having a big internet presence (ensuring a high number of YouTube views for a band for example), giving their idols gifts, preparing or paying for their lunch, and so on. The fan clubs are highly organized; they receive their official name and an official color from the artists’ management company. The official color is incorporated into glow sticks, balloons and other paraphernalia that are used as a signifier of the fans’ loyalty during concerts. There are also the especially created fan chants, either made by the fans themselves or the management company. These complex chants consist of backing vocals and countermelodies, especially made for the artists’ performance and is song in unison by the fans (Flatley, 2012).

The thing that the fans seem to appreciate most, besides the music, is the image that the idols give off. They are often applauded for being hardworking, humble and respectful. If they do not adhere to these ethical and moral values, their popularity can quickly evaporate and idols receive a lot of backlash for not behaving ‘properly’. Thus, while ‘authentic’ musicians and critics may dismiss K-pop and its audience, it should be recognized that the K-pop audience probably has very different notions of what being a good, authentic musician is about. I think K-pop actually does a great job in being what it is supposed to be: catchy, fun music that speaks to a big audience. When I listen to K-pop myself, I am, at that moment, not looking for deep and intelligent music, but I just want to have fun while listening, which is exactly what K-pop offers.

The demotic K-pop and the democratic hip-hop?

To take a bit of a deeper look into the notion of being an authentic musician I will make use of Graeme Turner’s The Mass Production of Celebrity (2006), in which he theorizes that the production of celebrity these days represents a demotic rather than a democratic turn. Turner discusses the fact that the way of producing celebrities nowadays seems to focus much more on the ordinariness of celebrities, instead of their star quality. He argues that media play a big role in the cultural construction of what a celebrity is and cleverly play into the constant need for celebrities through their programming. This turn of events, according to Turner, does not make the media sphere more democratized, but is better described as a ‘demotic turn’.

It is important to remember that celebrity still remains a systematically hierarchical and exclusive category, no matter how much it proliferates. No amount of public participation in game shows, reality TV, or DIY celebrity websites will alter the fact that, overall, the media industries still remain in control of the symbolic economy and that they still attempt to operate this economy in the service of their own interests. Further (…), I also want to insist that there is no necessary connection between, on the one hand, a broadening demographic in the pattern of access to media and, on the other, democratic politics. Hence my view that these developments are more correctly seen as demotic, rather than a democratic, turn. (Turner, 2006:158)

I think that Turner’s argument is very applicable to the concept of K-pop and reversibly applicable to hip-hop. In K-pop, for one, the high turnover of celebrity production might give off the idea of it being accessible. Extraordinary talent is not required, you just have to be determined and dedicated, so K-pop can give off the idea that it is a democratic affair. Anyone can achieve K-pop idol stardom if they just put their mind to it. Besides the broader demographic that has access to stardom, there is another way in which K-pop seems to involve a democratic turn. As mentioned, fan involvement is a pivotal part of K-pop. It is spurred through social media, the rise of which, in general, is often seen as a democratic development. Idols and their management companies employ social media to let the fans in on their life, giving them sneak-peaks of their ordinariness. Reality TV-programs are also used to market the stars as ordinary people. Yet even though this all seems to indicate that the K-Pop sphere represents a democratic turn, it is still management companies that are the almighty rulers. Not only do they decide what the market is going to consist of, also for their stars they are the ultimate decision makers. Once prospective K-Pop stars sign a contract with the agency, the agency can decide everything for them, from their living space, diet and wardrobe, right up to owning a cell phone and imposing a dating ban. So even though it seems everyone has a shot at stardom, once the contract is signed, this opportunity of being a K-pop idol becomes anything but democratic. The agencies represent the ultimate hierarchy and the trainee or idol is barely even at the bottom of this pyramid. This faux-democracy in K-pop is best described as a demotic turn.

In hip-hop, conversely, the whole movement began out of anti-establishment, anti-hierarchical sentiments. Hip-hop is arguably one of the most democratic music genres in existence, since the audience access of hip-hop makes it actually democratic. In hip-hop, the people that are very much underrepresented in their society, in this case the African-American youth in the U.S., have a way to voice their opinion and keep it their own. Even within so-called ‘black’-music genres, it is the only one that was not quickly appreciated and consequently appropriated by White people (Gilroy, 1993:97). Through hip-hop—which has now grown into the biggest musical genre and cultural commodity in the U.S.—people ‘from the streets’ can turn their fate around and accumulate success, wealth and respect, and can suddenly have a say in how their society and culture is shaped. So instead of merely appearing democratic, but actually being demotic, like K-pop, I would like to argue that hip-hop is in essence democratic. The interesting result is having people who, even today, are often marginalized in their society, at the same time being the main cultural exporters and tastemakers in their society. By giving one of the most marginalized minorities in the U.S. a way not only to express their voice, but also to address the inequality they deal with on a daily basis, the democratic power of hip-hop is undeniable—and its power is built on it being an authentic genre in music. In essence, as well as in execution, hip-hop is democratic.


When we look at authenticity construction as a part of the good/bad music paradigm, it is definitely not as simple as it appears at first glance. This is mainly because the concept of authenticity is a problematic one. We have seen that authenticity in hip-hop and K-pop mean completely different things. Cultural aspects and social conditions play a very important part in authenticity construction, and consequently authenticity in Korea and in the U.S. have little to do with each other. In hip-hop we see the importance of showing the connection with ‘the streets’, with ‘the real world’. The underdog position of a lot of participants in hip-hop culture defines how their version of authenticity is framed. Based on this construction of authenticity we can call hip-hop a democratic music genre, at least in line with Turner’s ideas of celebrity production. In hip-hop, the search for originality is defined by the struggle for recognition, recognition for their marginalized position in an unequal society and their anger towards this inequality.

Unlike the anti-establishment movement that is hip-hop, K-pop mirrors the reigning cultural idiom of Korea and in a way can be seen as a representation of Korean society. As far as K-Pop goes, much of the idea of authenticity is based in the Buddhist and Confucian principles of Korean society, especially with regard to work ethic and moral guidelines. These even resonate in the music industry, where topics like hierarchy, dedication etc. remain a very important factor in deciding the value of the musician (and the music). Unlike hip-hop, K-Pop represents a demotic turn rather than a democratic one, as the system heavily emphasizes hierarchy and proper conduct. Although enjoyable music is important, it fits into the still quite conservative society to place more importance on behavior. The idols are made to be role models, so that young people can follow their lead and become adequate members of society. Therefore the construction of authenticity does not lie in the music or its message, but in the message the performer gives off.

So which one is more authentic? As Frith demonstrates, value judgment is established and given meaning in social interaction. Considering the cultural differences and completely different social and political circumstances in Korea and the U.S., I do not think we should see hip-hop as authentic or ‘good’ and K-pop as inauthentic or ‘bad’, but both as cultural products from societies that have different views on the concept of authenticity. Rather than judging music as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it might make more sense to look at how musical authenticity is established in the local, social context. In Korean society, the authenticity of the musician or idol is more so established through their persona than their music alone. If the musician/idol’s behavior is congruent with the prevailing Confucian ideals, it is enough to take them seriously, at least in their role as idols. The origin of hip-hop makes it very important for the audience to take the MCs serious as musicians. It is not sufficient for them only to be performers, they need to take up the role of artists. Since hip-hop accesses these deep emotions and feelings of anger, the artists should be genuine in their transmission of these emotions through their songs. Both music genres are in their own right products of their social environments and it is not necessary to judge them from the perspective of other cultural contexts. As Boon argues, the act of copying lies at the basis of humanity, and maybe we should reconsider the notion of authenticity altogether and recognize that it has many, not just one, meanings.

(Written for Project Y-Global Youth Cultures Network, November 2014)

Ida Bulölö is currently studying abroad for a semester at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, but normally she is a Cultural Anthropology major at the University of Amsterdam. She is especially interested in popular/youth culture, East Asia, internet culture and topics such as authenticity and obsession. Connect with Ida on LinkedIn.


Boon, Marcus (2010). In Praise of Copying. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

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